Like a growing number of school districts, North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools (GCS) has early college programs that allow students to earn college credit while they’re still in high school. But what’s unique about GCS is the number of choices the district offers: 14 altogether, including nine high schools that operate on college campuses.

GCS has offered early college options since 2001 and has seen remarkable success, despite serving a largely urban and low-income population. All but two of its early college high schools have a 100-percent graduation rate—and the lowest rate among the other two is 97 percent.

What’s more, these programs aren’t just serving the top students in the district, who would already be on a college track. Some of them target students considered at risk of dropping out, making college both attainable and affordable for students who otherwise would not attend.

“We take pride in offering choices for our students,” said Nakia Hardy, chief academic officer for the district. “Our early college programs are having a phenomenal impact on students. All of them are smaller than traditional high schools, and students are performing exceptionally well.”

How the Programs Work

In all of these programs, students take high school courses taught by GCS instructors during their first two years. During their junior and senior years, they take college-level courses taught by college instructors, and they can graduate with up to two years of college credit tuition-free.

At the STEM Early College at North Carolina A&T University, for instance, students can focus on one of three career pathways: biotechnology, engineering, or renewable and sustainable resources. “For many of our students, this program is their ticket to reaching their goals,” said Principal Jamisa Williams. “Their tuition is covered, and they are two years ahead of their peers when they graduate. That’s money in the bank for them.”

Focusing on the Disengaged

While the STEM Early College program attracts traditionally high-achieving students who want to get a jump on their college experience, the Middle College at North Carolina A&T is very different. It focuses on young men who feel disengaged from school and are in danger of failing. The program seeks to reengage these students by accelerating their learning so they are no longer bored with school, while connecting the skills they are developing with practical careers such as entrepreneurship or app development. (The Middle College at Bennett College is a similar program just for young women.)

“We accept students from all academic tracks, and not just the ‘A’ students,” said Marcus Gauss, principal of the Middle College at A&T. “Students who are struggling in a traditional school setting often benefit from a smaller learning environment. We have class sizes of 10 to 15 students, so we can focus on students as individuals. This gives us a chance to work more often with them one-on-one.”

Guilford County’s early college programs are changing students’ lives. Williams described one senior in the STEM Early College program who wants to be a doctor and was accepted into his top choice of universities. “He has shared with me that, had it not been for this school, he would not be going on to college,” she said. “He would not have been able to afford it. We have students whose dreams are being fulfilled because of this opportunity.”

It’s not only academic achievement that defines the success of these programs. “The social-emotional skills and confidence that students are gaining are tremendous,” Hardy said. “They are able to advocate for themselves—and that’s ultimately the real benefit.”

(Next page: 3 lessons schools can learn from Guilford’s early college program success)


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